Though still among the top five mobile phone vendors worldwide, Apple has conceded fourth place to China's ZTE, according to the "Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker" report released today by IDC.
Looking at the global market share of the top mobile phone vendors in the fourth quarter, Apple dipped from fourth to fifth place despite a record quarter for phone shipments, the report said.
The iPhone maker shipped 16.2 million units, a healthy boost from the 14.1 million units shipped in the third quarter and the 8.7 million shipped in 2009's final quarter. Apple's flagship phone sold especially well in developed countries, including North America and Western Europe.
Apple's global market share for the quarter slipped only slightly to 4 percent from 4.1 percent the prior quarter. But that combined with a surge in shipments for ZTE, which has sold mostly lower-cost feature phones, allowed the Chinese mobile phone maker to steal fourth place away from Apple.
Hitting the top five for the very first time, ZTE shipped 16.8 million units for the quarter, helping it win a 4.2 percent slice of the market.
Expanding its customer base beyond China, ZTE has picked up business in developing areas such as Africa and Latin America and made further inroads in the U.S. and Western Europe. Traditionally focused on entry-level and mid-range phones, ZTE has lately been beefing up its smartphone portfolio, launching the Android-based Blade and Racer phones.
Despite ZTE's surge, the horse race to win one of top five spots in shipments and market share is one that can easily change from quarter to quarter, IDC noted.
"Change-up among the number four and five vendors could be a regular occurrence this year," Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team, said in a statement. "Motorola, Research In Motion, and Sony Ericsson--all vendors with a tight focus on the fast-growing smartphone market who had ranked among the top five worldwide vendors during 2010--are well within striking distance to move back into the top five list."
Overall, the global mobile phone market rose 17.9 percent in the fourth quarter compared with 2009's final quarter. Collectively, vendors shipped 401.4 million units in the quarter versus 340.5 million a year ago.
For 2010 as a whole, the industry saw shipments of 1.39 billion units, a jump of 18.5 percent from the 1.17 billion shipped in 2009.
The surge in annual shipments came courtesy of an improved economy and a wider selection of more affordable smartphones, helping the industry enjoy its highest annual growth rate since 2006.
Looking ahead, the worldwide mobile phone market will continue to be boosted by demand for smartphones.
"Feature phone users looking to do more with their devices will flock to smartphones in the years to come," Kevin Restivo, a senior IDC research analyst, said in a statement. "This trend will help drive the smartphone sub-market to grow 43.7 percent year over year in 2011."